What Google Cardboard is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important.

There is always a fair amount of confusion when it comes to Virtual Reality and related technologies. This is not exactly surprising as what has been going on in the last few years has been coming at a breakneck pace.  However nothing seems to be more confusing to individuals and media outlets than Google Cardboard. Google Cardboard was revealed on Jun 26 during the 2014 Google I/O conference. At its basics Google Cardboard is a simple enclosure, and an open source Software Development Kit (SDK) that transforms a smartphone into a simple virtual reality headset.

The physical “cardboard” part of Google Cardboard is first a method of suspending a paired set of lenses, at the correct focal length, over your smartphone so half of the screen is in focus for each eye giving you the ability to see a stereo 3D view.  The second feature of the physical cardboard is a method for triggering an event. On the original or Cardboard V1 design this was a pair of magnets attached to the side of the device that could be shifted and detected by your smartphones magnetic field sensor. This trigger can also be done via a direct or indirect touch of the screen. The cardboard 2.0 design features a soft screen touch button enabled with a clever use of conductive foam and tape. (Something covered in the original cardboard specification but not implemented)

On the software end google has provided a pair of software development kits, (SDK) one for Android and one for the Unity Game engine. These SDKs provide a developer an easier path to creating google cardboard experiences by handling the basics such as user head tracking, stereo rendering, and lens distortion correction. Use of these SDKs is not a requirement to create a google cardboard app and other companies such as Durovis, makers of the dive VR headset, provide their own SDKs with their own set of features.

Google Cardboard is not a product sold by google. The cardboard specifications were created by Google, but there is no official producer or retailer for the device. Many media outlets get this entire concept wrong and refer to various vendors efforts as “knock offs” or “challenges” to google when it simply isn’t true. In fact if you go to the official google cardboard site you can’t buy the device from google. You will find plans to make your own cardboard device from scratch or to buy kits or finished designs from other companies. As there isn’t a specific design standard for google cardboard manufactures are free to experiment with material and design.

The importance of this simple folded cardboard box is easy to dismiss and google cardboard was considered by many to just be a prank by google at the 2014 Google I/O conference. Of course the amazing part of google cardboard has nothing to do with the cardboard but has everything to do with the smartphone inside of it. Most modern smartphones include a screen with a size & resolution good enough to be used as a stereo display, a gyroscope & accelerometer good enough to do head tracking and stereo audio good enough to do spatialized audio. All of this technology that hundreds of millions of people worldwide have in their pockets is more than enough to drive a fairly compelling VR experience. The fact is a google cardboard headset more or less rivals most VR systems from the from the 90’s costing many thousands of dollars

Of course this shift in price is the real importance of google cardboard. High end VR systems for the consumer market are on the way, but will cost several hundreds to over a thousand of dollars for a complete system. A basic google cardboard case can be had for a few dollars and are often given away by the thousands as promotions at events. Google has stated that over a million cardboard units have been sold already and with the Mattel’s View-Master cardboard device coming out for the 2015 holiday season the devices are going to be common by next year.  5 to 10 years from now when VR is commonplace we will look back on cardboard as the spark that got most people interested in VR much like we look back at the oversized cellphones that lead to the smartphone age we live in today.

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